Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dining with Giants

We had an opportunity on Friday to have dinner with some folks who have made a difference in each of our lives. The occasion was the annual American Foundation for the Blind accessibility awards dinner and we were there because Serotek received the award for System Access To Go. My wife and I were in rare company and we were honored to be there. SAToGo has indeed made a difference in many people’s lives and will continue to do so for years to come. But I don’t want to talk about us today. I sat in a room full of giants – people making a difference every day and not getting a whole lot of press. I want to celebrate these people – both the recipients and the members of the American Foundation for the Blind who came together to recognize these contributions.
There were three recipients of the 2008 Accessibility Award. In addition to Serotek, the award was given to Code Factory and to Lainey Feingold and Linda Dardarian.
At the same event, Anita Aaron, Executive Director of the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind received the 2008 Gallagher Award.
My good friend Eduardo Sanchez Palazon, CEO of Code Factory, came from Spain to receive the accessibility award for making cell phones, smart phones, and PDAs accessible with Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier. I truthfully could not do my job without these powerful tools that let me tap into our network from my smart phone and run Serotek from wherever I am. In December, Code Factory signed an agreement with AT&T to make accessible cell phones available to the blind community at a discount. Eduardo is unique because he sees us blind folks as customers – not the agencies, not the government, but just us blind folks. And he treats us like customers, not like welfare recipients looking for a handout. Eduardo not only serves our communication needs, but he gives our self-esteem a huge shot in the arm and for that alone the man deserves all the awards and kudos that are heaped upon him.
Lainey Feingold and Linda Dardarian are lawyers who have been making the case for accessibility for several years. Lainey and her co counsel developed a process, called “Structured Negotiation” which replaces costly and contentious litigation with formal, structured negotiation as a means of solving accessibility issues. Her success rate is awe-inspiring. Thanks to Lainey you and I can access ATM’s and point of sale terminals at thousands of banks and stores nationwide. She has agreements with 7-11, American Express, Bank of America, Bank One, Citibank, Radio Shack, Safeway, Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s, Wells Fargo and many other banks and retail operations. In our litigious, contentious society it is a breath of fresh air to see a different approach – reasonable people working together to solve an issue – and actually succeed.
Anita Aaron, who received the 2008 Gallagher Award, is legendary in San Francisco where she has been Executive Director of the Lighthouse for the Blind for seventeen years. She also serves on the San Francisco Commission on Aging and Adult Services, is on the Board of Directors of the Curry Senior Center and a member of the Blind Services Advisory Committee of the State Department of Rehabilitation. California’s and specifically San Francisco’s leadership in accessibility issues is largely due to Anita’s firm hand.
The award recipients weren’t the only giants at the affair. Our host, Carl Augusto, the President and CEO of the AFB certainly has left his imprint on our lives, extending the AFB’s scope to influence corporate America to make accessible products and acting as unifying force, bringing service organizations of and for the blind together in a collaborative way to further the common objective of accessibility and independent living. Under Carl’s tutelage the AFB is promoting accessibility for seniors who are losing their vision from age-related conditions.
The room was filled with many business and community leaders, serving on the AFB’s Board of Directors, many of them blind. They come from all walks of life: banks, universities, major corporations, law firms; and a wide variety of government and NGOs serving the needs of the blind. I am sure, however, that Mike May, our emcee was the only blind individual in the room who had both set world records as a blind downhill skier and worked for the CIA. Warm and charming, Mike was entertaining and inspirational. I have his book, “Crashing Through,” written with Robert Kurson on my list of “must reads.” Blind from the age of three, Mike is one of a small group of individuals who had some vision restored with stem cell transplant surgery less than a decade ago. Most of us can imagine his emotional and intellectual struggle whether or not to go through with this life-altering and very “iffy” surgery.
I am grateful to the AFB for honoring our Serotek team by making us part of this affair. They did everything right. It was at the same time elegant and casual; people dressed to the nines, but warm and friendly. The food and company was superb. There was no competition among the industry people. Rather there was a universal appreciation for what each had brought to benefit our community. Maybe it was the never empty wine glass, but by the end of the evening I was thinking that it is a great misperception when people complain that our blind youth have no heroes – no one to look up to and see what is possible. This room was filled with heroes – everyday heroes making a difference in peoples’ lives, not in any way restricted by the fact that they are blind or have low vision. Every one of us has an opportunity to be that kind of hero. We only need to follow our passion and believe that we can.

No comments: